Pronunciation could be a tricky area for both students and teachers, but it is a vital skill for students if they wish to be understood in the real world. Pronunciation expert, Robin Walker, author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, gives his views on teaching pronunciation.
Q: How has the attitude to teaching pronunciation changed recently (if at all)?
RW: I don’t really know, but if I think about pronunciation at teacher’s conferences, I have to conclude that the attitude most prevalent today is lack of interest. There are very few talks on pronunciation at conferences now, and attendance at these talks is too often closer to ten than to a hundred and ten. Similarly, if you browse through teacher’s magazines, you don’t find too many articles or regular features on pronunciation.
Q: Does pronunciation matter?
RW: Teachers know from experience that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get the words out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce. Then of course, if your pronunciation is poor, listening can be a nightmare, either because you simply don’t hear key sounds or words, or because you have to dedicate so much processing power to listening that your brain very quickly overloads and blocks.
Less obvious is the impact of poor pronunciation on reading and writing. At the level of writing, the impact might be merely anecdotal. My students would often write ‘crap’ instead of ‘crab’ because of limitations in their pronunciation. But at the end of her talk on L2 reading at the 2008 IATEFL Conference, OUP author Catherine Walter told the audience that if their learners wanted to read better, they would have to improve their pronunciation. She was not being facetious here. She was basing this invaluable piece of advice on serious academic research into how we read.
Speaking, listening, writing, reading – competence in all four skills is closely related to competence in pronunciation. The same is obviously true for vocabulary, and even for grammar, as is witnessed by the pronunciation CD that accompanies the Oxford English Grammar Course.
Q: What advice would you give to teachers who are new to pronunciation?
RW: First, I’d tell them not to be afraid of teaching pronunciation. You might make mistakes occasionally at the beginning, but it’s far better to teach pronunciation and make occasional mistakes than not to teach it at all. You can’t change your learners’ ages, nor their different individual aptitudes for pronunciation, but as a teacher you can very strongly influence their attitude to it by showing them that pronunciation matters. Teach it, and teach it regularly. And value what you teach by including pronunciation in any interim or end-of-course evaluations.
Secondly, I’d tell teachers who don’t have one of the prestige native-speaker accents that they can and should still teach pronunciation. I had a colleague from Glasgow, for example, who for a long time avoided teaching pronunciation for fear he’d ‘contaminate’ his learners. Yet he himself was perfectly understood wherever he went as a teacher trainer so his accent clearly wasn’t a problem. Similarly, non-native speaker teachers worry too much about not having a ‘perfect’ accent, by which they mean they don’t sound like a native speaker. But why should they? They aren’t native speakers. And, just as with my Glasgow colleague, if their experience of using English as they travel or when they are at conferences shows that their accent is intelligible to the vast majority of listeners, then their accent is not a problem.
More important still, I’d tell non-native speaker teachers, who are the huge majority of teachers around the world, that they bring something very special to pronunciation teaching – they bring their own personal experience of learning the pronunciation of English. No native speaker has this experience, nor ever can have it, but it is experience that can make a non-native speaker teacher an excellent instructor for pronunciation, as well as a meaningful, realistic target for learners to aspire to.